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A critical Supreme Court seg fee decision on campus turns 18 years old today. Here’s why it still matters.

On this day 18 years ago, the Supreme Court issued its decision on UW System v. Southworth, ruling in favor of the System.

Image By: Image by Cameron Lane-Flehinger

In April 1996, three former UW-Madison law students sued the UW System because they felt that their mandatory segregated fee — which was distributed to groups with ideologies the students disagreed with — violated their First Amendment rights.

Finally, on March 22, 2000, the Supreme Court issued its decision on UW System v. Southworth in favor of the university, laying the groundwork for how student segregated fees are allocated today. The case is still referenced today as students continue the debate about whether it is ethical for student fees to support controversial organizations. Here’s what you need to know:

5. Your student government is mandated to make decisions based on “viewpoint neutrality”

Cameron Lane-Flehinger | The Daily Cardinal

The Supreme Court ruled that the university could collect a mandatory student fee as long as allocation decisions were made based on viewpoint neutrality.

The principle means that funding decisions must be made independent of political or ideological beliefs. Additionally, it ensures that different groups may be funded at varying amounts depending on their needs as an organization.

This also means that two groups with directly opposing viewpoints will not necessarily receive the same amount of funding, since the decision is based on what the level of service the organization provides students, not on their messages.

According to ASM’s website, viewpoint neutrality has been “subject to misinterpretation.” Over the years, there have been several instances where the Student Services Finance Committee has been accused of not following viewpoint neutrality and being discriminatory to groups. 

In 2002, two committee members accused their fellow representatives of violation and in 2013 Student Judiciary ruled in favor of SSFC in two separate cases alleging viewpoint neutrality. In 2006, Student Judiciary ruled against SSFC’s decision to deny UW Roman Catholic Foundation (today, Badger Catholic) contract status — which would have allowed them to pay full-time professional staff out of segregated fees. Originally, the group alleged a viewpoint neutrality violation, but later withdrew their complaint.

4. Many said the decision made it easier for orgs to receive funding, including a Satanic group

In October 2001, Rob Staude, an SSFC representative, told The Daily Cardinal that this year's SSFC board was proving it was viewpoint neutral and the Southworth ruling made it easier for groups to get money. 

“I think people are making efforts to be neutral and we're checking each other to make sure we are focused on eligibility and how [the groups] are student services. It's something that we're more conscious of than last year,” he said at the time. “'It becomes harder to say to the groups that you can't get money because of Southworth because it allows any student service group to get money.”

In the spring of 2002, a Satanic group at UW-Oshkosh received funding after “presenting a reasonable budget proposal,” The Daily Cardinal reported at the time.

Nathan Wardinski, treasurer for Obsidian Enlightenment, said he hoped the Oshkosh Student Association would remember the Southworth case again in the fall when the group presented a new budget. But Scott Southworth said he felt that a decision by the organization to use his case in order to receive funding would be strategic. However, he does not think the group should be funded by student segregated fees.

“No student should be forced to fund the political, ideological or religious activities of anybody else and this is exactly what is happening at this point,” Southworth told The Daily Cardinal at the time. “I think it's tragic that any student of Christian faith, Islamic faith or Jewish faith would have to fund a Satanic organization. I also think it's tragic that this system is designed to force students to fund, not only Satanic groups, but any group.”

3. Badger Catholic took the university to court over the same argument

This case would’ve been the second one from UW-Madison that the Supreme Court would have seen since UW System v. Southworth. Instead, in 2011 it denied the university’s appeal of a lower court decision — which found that the university’s denial of funding violated the group’s First Amendment right to free speech — meaning that Badger Catholic won the case.

During the 2006-'07 and 2007-'08 academic years, UW-Madison denied funding for some Badger Catholic activities the university deemed strictly religious in nature, The Daily Cardinal reported in 2011. The activities included student mentoring sessions with Catholic nuns and priests and a retreat at which participants held regular mass and prayer sessions.

UW-Madison's legal department said those activities were a violation of the separation of church and state and as a result the group should not be rewarded student segregated fees for them.

“This will certainly allow Badger Catholic, and also student groups on the University of [Wisconsin] Madison campus and across the nation, to really deepen the level of programming they are able to provide for students and that students want to receive,” said Badger Catholic President Nico Fassino after the decision.

2. The same argument popped up again during the 2017 “opt-out scare”

A provision in Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposal in the state’s 2017-’19 biennial budget would’ve allowed students to opt-out of their allocable segregated fees, causing worry among groups that receive funding on UW campuses. However, the Joint Finance Committee struck down the provision.

Walker said the provision would’ve let students “make the decisions on what they do and do not want to fund.” In 2017, an opt-out would have amounted to $90 out of the $607 in fees students pay each semester.

“This is the best example of big government overreach, trying to take control of our allocable fees,” Colin Barushok, then-chair of SSFC, said at the time. “They don’t have any business telling students they can opt-out of these fees, especially considering these fees are allocated by elected student officials.”

1. Conservative outlets say that more funding goes to liberal organizations

Emily Buck | The Daily Cardinal


An article from Campus Reform in early March 2018 claimed that liberal organizations received an overwhelming majority of student fee funding at UW-Madison with about $7.60 going to liberal organizations and only $0.36 going to conservative groups.

“Students are sick of funding organizations they don't agree with, especially when the cost of tuition and [other expenses] keep going up,” said Jake Lubenow, chair of College Republicans, in an interview on 1310 WIBA radio with Vicki McKenna. “We want to make sure it's as cheap as possible for students to attend university.”

But SSFC Rep. Max Goldfarb said he thought the statistics were “misleading.”

“Madison is an overwhelmingly liberal institution, and therefore it shouldn’t be surprising that liberal groups receive more funding than conservative ones,” Goldfarb told The Daily Cardinal. “Nonetheless, conservative groups like any other groups on campus have the opportunity to make their case to the SSFC and should be confident that decisions are made fairly and without ideological contamination.” 

Since the Assembly session has concluded and won’t pick up again until next year, it is unlikely that the opt-out could come up.

Andrew Bahl, Nina Bertelsen, Mary Chen, Will Hoverman, Kayla Johnson, Sam Karp, Bremen Keasey, Cheyenne Langkamp, Erica Pelzek, Liz Puibello, Kevin Roth, Meghan Thompson and Steven Wishau contributed to this report.

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